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What are some of the new developments in AR and VR – and what is available for South Africans to try out right now? Mandy J Watson finds out. 

The 8th annual USA Augmented World Expo starts soon and it will focus on technologies and innovations in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Although it’s an industry event that offers sessions for developers to help them make better experiences, there will be major announcements for us too – but for now they’re being kept under wraps.

What we do know is that some of the key topics up for discussion include smart glasses in medicine (both for humans and animals), AR and VR for the visually impaired, creating better immersive storytelling, and VR and AR applications in the aerospace and automotive industries, and in professional sports.

NVIDIA’s Project Holodeck – a ‘photorealistic, collaborative environment’ that allows multiple people to work inside a virtual environment together – is also being showcased, as is Smart Scenery by Clever Robot Labs, an AR technology that applies new textures and scenery to the room you’re in in real time.

We’ll have to wait to find out what else comes out of the expo but you can play with both AR and VR technologies right now. Some of it requires expensive hardware – but some of it is free.

Augmented Reality

If you’ve used Snapchat Lenses, Facebook Stories, or Instagram Stories to add special effects to your videos or photos you’ve already used AR on your phone. The same is true if you’re a Pokémon Go player, which was the first game that really demonstrated how AR could bring a gaming experience into the real world. Locally the development house Sea Monster created an app that allows customers to visualise furniture from the @home catalogue right in the room they’re in.

Experiences such as Pokémon Go also offer the possibility for the return of smart glasses. Google Glass, of course, was ridiculed and died an early death but Snap’s Spectacles, which have debuted overseas, don’t have the same stigma.

Virtual Reality

VR requires hardware as it’s a 3D immersive experience but some is inexpensive, such as Google Cardboard, which turns your smartphone into a viewer. You can build it yourself for free (you just need to source a few parts) or you can buy it from online stores such as The Virtual Space and Takealot for as little as R100. There are lots of apps for Google Cardboard in the Google Play store as well as 360-degree videos on YouTube to play with.

PlayStation VR for the PS4 (from R6 500) and Samsung Gear VR (from R1 500) for certain Samsung mobile devices are both available through online stores such as Raru and Takealot.

If you aren't sure about VR then test some of the hardware, games, and interactive immersive experiences at a VR arcade. VRCade in Cape Town (Old Biscuit Mill, Woodstock) and Johannesburg (Vodaworld, Randburg) lets you try the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Virtualworld in Stadium On Main, Cape Town, offers the HTC Vive, and you can find PSVR at the Nexus gaming centre in Randburg, Johannesburg.

If you haven’t tried out the technologies yet now’s the time – there are new worlds waiting for you.

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